After massive crowds at women's marches, what's next?

The huge crowds could point to a nascent anti-Trump political wave – or a new liberal movement that fizzles out from lack of focus. 

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
Crowds gather for the rally on Independence Ave next to the National Mall at the Women's March on Washington on Jan. 21 in Washington.

When Anna Afshar started seeing all the Facebook posts about the Women’s March on Washington last week, she was intrigued.

But when she arrived at her local protest in Indianapolis Saturday, she was shocked by the energy and turnout, and she left feeling newly inspired. About 5,000 people gathered with her in Indianapolis, joining an estimated 4 million others who marched in the nation’s largest cities on Saturday, protesting the inauguration of Donald Trump the day before.

“I was amazed at the attendance, amazed at the turnout of our state, which is pretty conservative,” says Ms. Afshar, an artist and mother who came to the United States 25 years ago from Russia and is married to a Muslim man. “Especially the speakers who spoke at the march, they inspired me to do more than just talk on Facebook with friends. Now I regret I didn’t take more time participating during the campaign.”

Across the country, liberal-leaning Americans who attended Saturday’s marches are still buzzing, many talking about the exhilarating sense of solidarity they experienced – as well as newfound purpose to get more involved in politics.

“I've been studying protest movements, digital and nondigital, for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” says David Karpf, an expert on the intersection of politics and Internet strategies at George Washington University in Washington. “Starting on Facebook and then translating out, on such a short timescale, is quite incredible. It speaks to the genuine depths of anger people are feeling right now.”

A tea party of the left?

It’s an anger that has infused recent liberal protest movements, from Occupy Wall Street in 2011 to Black Lives Matter to the presidential campaign of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, to some extent. These movements have had varying levels of success, but nothing like the transformative political impact of the tea party and the push for Mr. Trump himself on the right.

The power of the conservative insurgency has come at the ballot box, both by toppling moderate Republican candidates in recent congressional races and by supercharging rural and working-class white voters during this past presidential election. To have the same influence, liberals would need to shift the electoral map as Republicans have done.

It’s not impossible. In many ways, President Obama flipped the map singlehandedly in 2008 and 2012, motivating young and minority voters to support him in unusually high numbers. Saturday suggested women voters could form the core of a nascent anti-Trump wave. The question now is whether liberals can maintain that momentum.

Some experts have their doubts. The strength of social media in driving Saturday’s stunning success might also signal a weakness.

In the civil rights movements of the past, protesters were galvanized by charismatic leaders and established organizations that focused on specific, easy-to-grasp issues. The current protests, however, often consciously reject hierarchy and top-down leadership models, instead insisting upon group consensus and emphasizing “intersectionality” – or the inclusion of all marginalized and oppressed groups in every protest.

On Saturday, a day after the inauguration, the protests became an avenue for people of all different stripes to vent. But events without focus or leadership might not continue to work.

“Social media has been a vital ingredient in fostering large scale, leaderless political organizing,” says Aram Sinnreich, a communications professor at American University in Washington, citing Occupy and Black Lives Matter. “But I think ultimately there is a danger of any leaderless movement collapsing under its own weight.”

Daunting task

But others say the movement could gain focus as the Trump administration acts.

“Going forward, the Trump administration will go from a thing we worry about, to a think that is actually happening in reality,” says Professor Karpf of George Washington University. “That will clarify the agenda for the movement.”

The tea party movement – originally seen as a libertarian, low-tax protest – eventually became the umbrella for a wider conservative populist rebellion against Obama. 

In that way, Saturday’s protest might point to a similar counterrebellion on the left. The hope is for a mirror of the wave election of 2010 – Obama’s first midterm – when Democrats lost 63 House seats and six Senate seats as the tea party reshaped Washington.

But the task ahead for liberals is daunting. Only eight of the 33 Senate seats up for election in 2018 are held by Republicans – meaning Democrats will be forced to defend more than attack. (In 2010, Democrats and Republicans were defending almost equal numbers of Senate seats.) And in 2018, only 23 House Republicans will have to face reelection in districts won by Hillary Clinton.

Beyond Congress, statehouses show Republicans’ recent domination of politics even more sharply. Republicans control twice as many statehouses as Democrats: 67 of the nation’s 98 partisan legislatures and 31 governor’s mansions.

Political movements are often years in the making, many scholars say.

“The march on Washington in 1963 was the culmination of years of local activism, including civil disobedience, registering voters, protecting civil rights workers and voter education movements,” said media scholar and activist Todd Gitlin to The New York Times. “Organizations need to be ready to receive the protesters when they’re ready to take the next step. You need to be a full-service movement.”   

'Now I'll tell them'

But some of Saturday’s marchers say they’re not likely to quiet down any time soon.

Marcia Pollard, who was at the Washington march, said she has long avoided talking politics at work. She has shied away from telling people she is in favor of abortion rights, for instance.

Not anymore.

“You are your own boss,” she said. “I know how I feel, and I am not going to be disrespectful of them, I’ll just say ‘I’m pro-choice.’ Now I’ll tell them.”

Others said Saturday’s march resonated because of the sense of community it generated – something they’re eager to feel more of.

“It was to protest in a way, but also a celebration of the freedoms we have,” said Clarice Medrano, a writer from Alexandria, Va. “I really enjoyed the overall message and everyone was exceptionally civil and organized, handing out food to each other. It was inspiring to be around people with that many people with the same values, to be at a march on that scale.”

To Ms. Afshar, that size and encompassing feel of the rally was a positive point – not a drawback.

“I was a little skeptical going to the march because it was so focused on feminism,” she says. “The election of Trump is so much more than women’s rights.”

“But then [the march] surprised me with the speakers, and made me think forward and get involved,” Afshar adds. “Like my girlfriend messaged me, ‘Let’s stop complaining, let’s do something.’ ”

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